[Interview] Poet Nikki Giovanni on the Importance of America's Rosenwald Schools

Posted on: June 14th, 2012 by David Garber

Nikki Giovanni is a widely-read American poet, equality activist, professor of English at Virginia Tech, and the keynote speaker at this week's National Rosenwald Schools Conference. Built over the past 45 years, her collection of poetry is some of the most influential on issues of black American culture and experience.

We are excited for her to lend her voice to the issue of preserving the Rosenwald Schools -- the 4,977 mostly humble buildings paid for by businessman-turned-philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and built by community members throughout 15 states between 1912 and 1932, specifically to educate black children.


Left: A Mural of Giovanni's "Revolutionary Dreams" poem on 113th Street in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to ask Nikki Giovanni some questions leading up to her time at the conference. Take a look below, then tune in on Twitter on Saturday, June 16, at 10:30 a.m. CDT, where we'll live-tweet her plenary session from our @PresNationLive account.

What were your first feelings or takeaways after learning about the history of the Rosenwald Schools?

As a history major at Fisk University I was, of course, aware of the Rosenwald Schools and their marvelous history. I remember thinking how wonderful that people reached out to help the newly freed folk who had the desire and the talent but were not given the tools. I consider the Rosenwald schools right up there with the Carnegie Libraries: something needed to help those who had been denied not just an education but a personhood to begin to emerge from the shadows.

What do you find most compelling about the schools?

The most compelling aspect is still the correct reason: a people without access to education cannot go forward. The Sears/Roebuck family [Julius Rosenwald was the president of Sears until 1924] were terrific partners as many in the black community felt that Roebuck was a black American and was simply giving back to those who had helped him.

The Rosenwald Schools are important, but off the radar for many Americans. What actions do you think would better get them into the public eye?

A lot of black history is off radar, as is a lot of white history. Why do we have classic films of gangsters but not union workers? Why does every kid in America know Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Billy the Kid and any other robber and thief but not A. Phillip Randolph and the great story of the Pullman Porters? The only cure for ignorance and hatred is education and truth. Words are as meaningful as places.

Who or what do you hope the Rosenwald Schools inspire?

I hope these schools remind us what our ancestors have endured to bring us this far. It has been a good journey, but we still have a ways to go.

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